Politics is downstream from culture, as Andrew Breitbart used to say. Think what you want of the outfit that now bears his name, which has morphed greatly from what he had left behind before his death, but Andrew Breitbart was very astute in understanding that if you change the cultural narrative you can alter the political landscape as a consequence.
This phrase confirms another sentiment expressed by many libertarians over the years regarding the nature of a democratic government: politicians need to get re-elected. They will tend not to act upon something that is unpopular or if it is not accepted within their culture. Therefore an ideology must have already achieved critical mass in the hearts of the people before legislation can be passed to set it in stone.
In fact, I challenge you to find a law that wasn’t already popular at the time it was passed. Even the income tax, established in 1861-1862 – thanks, Abe! – was so low and affected so few people, that it was seen as a preferred way to generate revenues to fund the war against Southern independence.
Lest you think that control over the narrative presented in the various forms of mass media is critical only to totalitarian regimes for successful brainwashing, let the above paragraphs assure you that this is equally relevant for democratic regimes, too, if not more so. Bottom line is that without the populous on board ahead of time, political action is doomed to failure.
Many, myself included, often feel like we have “lost the war” over the hearts and minds of the general population who do not see taxation as theft or who support the killing of people abroad solely because it’s done by people in fancy costumes. The clear (and accelerating) trend is that of centralization and consolidation of power, not only with the tacit acceptance of the masses but often with the wide enthusiasm of its Progressive roots. But there is a groundswell stirring. There is certainly cause for optimism as the notion of mind-your-own-business is gaining currency farther and wider.
Understanding popular culture‘s place in society and its impact on politics can be very enlightening, instructive to where we are and where we are likely headed.
Books to pique your interest
Paul Cantor is undoubtedly the expert on this topic. He has written two fascinating and entertaining books on American popular culture, both in terms of a general overview – Gilligan Unbound – as well as a more specific account of libertarian themes in movies and TV in the aptly named The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, using TV shows and movies we’ve all likely seen, like The Simpsons, X-Files, South Park or Mars Attacks! and The Aviator.
As if Cantor didn’t point out all there is to glean from The Simpsons, Joshua Hall has edited a phenomenal book on economics, called Homer Economicus, where the contributing authors used – you guessed it! – only lessons learned from episodes of The Simpsons. This book covers broader economics topics like supply and demand, incentives and unintended consequences, as well as more specific topics like money and the market, government intervention, entrepreneurship, profit and loss, and microeconomics.
Homer Simpson is also featured alongside other fictional and real life characters, offering advice on rhetoric in Jay Heinrichs‘ Thank You for Arguing. John Tamny has taken this approach in his two fantastic books, Popular Economics and Who Needs the Fed. He uses entertaining anecdotes and well-known stories from popular movies, TV shows, and real life to illustrate economic concepts, politics, and arguments against the Federal Reserve.
Whether using stories and characters from pop culture to learn a topic or whether infusing pop culture with the essences of the topics we wish to teach, there is certainly a symbiotic relationship between the culture and the society it represents.
It is not a trivial matter to point out the impact culture and society have on each other, nor the repercussions they have on politics and policies. With the explosion of online social networks and platforms for content creation, a clever individual with a catchy meme can have a greater impact on the popular culture than highly regarded authors or poets had in years gone by. Go forth and make your mark on our culture. And as always, thank you for reading!